Photo courtesy of UAB Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: It was a very long season for the Blazers in 2011, as UAB had difficulties on both sides of the ball for the majority of the year, finishing 3-9 overall.
Coach Neil Callaway began his fifth season in charge of UAB with hopes of improving on 2010's mediocre 4-8 finish. The Blazers had difficulties with their early season schedule and could not manage to win a game until they had already lost six. UAB was blown out in Gainesville by Florida (39-0) in its opener and then found itself on the losing end of two Conference USA games versus Tulane (49-10) and East Carolina (28-23). The Blazers then lost a pair of non-conference games to Troy (24-23) and Mississippi State (21-3) before falling against Tulsa (37-20) in their return to league action.
UAB picked up its first victory over UCF (26-24) but could not build on the triumph and suffered a pair of lopsided losses to Marshall (59-14) and Chase Keenum's Houston Cougars (56-13). The brightest part of the season came near the conclusion, as Callaway was able to lead his squad past Memphis (41-35) on the road before returning home to upset Southern Miss (34-31).
However, the 2011 season ended on a bitter note as the Blazers lost to FAU (38-35), which was one of the worst teams out of the less celebrated Sun Belt Conference.
Callaway resigned after his team's digression and UAB officially made Garrick McGee its fourth coach in program history on December 4. McGee had spent the past four seasons as an offensive assistant at Arkansas. He previously had assistant coaching jobs at Northwestern, UNLV, and with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
OFFENSE: UAB has a lot of areas to address on the offensive side of the ball after an unimpressive showing in 2011. The Blazers showed promise in their final three games by averaging 36.7 points per game during that span. The good news is that many of the team's skill players and starting QB Jonathan Perry will be back. Perry completed 58 percent of his passes (174-of-300) for 2,042 yards and 10 TDs, but he also threw eight INTs. The junior signal caller should thrive under McGee's quarterback expertise.
All of the Blazers' top receivers are back as well. Jackie Williams is the leader among returners in yards (607) and grabs (58). Seniors Nick Adams and Patrick Hearn are dependable targets, and sophomore Jamarcus Nelson will challenge opposing secondaries with his blazing speed.
The rushing attack needs to be improved. Junior Greg Franklin (5-11, 197) returns after leading the team in yards (430) last season. McGee plans on using Franklin, Darrin Reaves, Dontavius Jackson, and redshirt freshman Bashr Coles in multiple power running formations. The offensive line is going to be the big question mark. Tackle Chris Hubbard (6-4, 285) is the only returning starter and the only proven commodity on the roster.
DEFENSE: The defense failed to put together any sort of stretch that could inspire optimism last season. UAB was at or near the bottom of the Conference USA rankings in nearly all defensive categories, including total defense (485.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (36.8 points per game). Senior LB Marvin Burdette is a key returner. He is the team's leading returning tackler (92) and also made 4.5 tackles for loss in 2011. The defensive line needs to get more aggressive after finishing last in the NCAA in sacks per game (0.7). Rush end Diaheem Watkins (6-4, 258) and tackle Connor Boyett (6-5, 267) are both capable of applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks due to their speed and quickness off the line.
"You have to be good on defense to win football games because at some point you're going to run into a defense that stops your offense." said McGee. "If you're not able to play any defense you don't have a chance in that game."
The secondary is filled with inexperience. Senior CB Cornelius Richards will have to be the leader of the group as he has by far the most experience. Sophomore CB Caleb Lester will start opposite of Richards, while Cortez Webb (6-2, 189) mans the free safety position. Caleb Lester and redshirt freshman Dequindre Adams will share the strong safety duties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Ty Long returns after a strong freshman campaign in 2011. He connected on 16-of-19 field goal attempts, including a game-winner to bury the C-USA champion Southern Miss Eagles. Hunter Mullins brings his 41.5 per punt average to the starting lineup.
OUTLOOK: McGee and his new staff have brought enthusiasm to Birmingham, but the program has a long way to go before it will be in contention for conference titles.
"We expect to do things right," said McGee. "We expect to develop some pride. We expect to develop a standard of excellence, a way we go about our business, and to put a product on the field that our alumni and our fans can be proud of."
UAB will probably fall into a hole quickly, with two of the first three games being on the road versus South Carolina and Ohio State. Six of the remaining 10 games are at home against opponents the Blazers have a much better chance of defeating. Tulsa, East Carolina, Marshall, and Memphis will all come through Legion Field this season. If the Blazers exceed expectations, their November 24 matchup at UCF in their season-finale could be the most critical game on the schedule.
Improving from last season's poor showing is possible due to the return of some role players on the offensive side. McGee's new system certainly could not fare any worse than the one that was previously in place. A four or five win season is attainable, which would be a good first step as the program progresses under a first time head coach.